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Slayton: Runnion And The News

Newspaperman Norm Runnion’s death earlier this month was another reminder that we are witnessing the passing, not only of a key generation of journalists, but also of the kind of journalism they represented.

For more than 20 years, Runnion was the managing editor of the Brattleboro Reformer, a classic small-city newspaper dedicated to gutsy coverage of local and state news. Before he came to Brattleboro, he was a reporter for United Press International, and covered some of the biggest stories of the 1960s and 70s.

But Norm Runnion downsized well. He brought the same hard-nosed search for facts and attention to detail to the Brattleboro Reformer that he had employed in covering international news. And Norm flat-out loved his adopted Vermont home.

Even after the Reformer went to bed, you could find Norm roaming the streets of Brattleboro, talking to people, poking around for news.

“I’m a newspaperman, my father was a newspaperman – I love that word,” he once said. “It would never have occurred to me to be anything else.”

Like Rutland Herald Managing Editor Kendall Wild, who died in April, getting the news, accurately and first, was the most important thing for Runnion. That’s what made his newspaper important, a must-read if you wanted to know what was going on in Windham County.

But times have changed and daily newspapers no longer have either the financial strength or the influence they once had. The Reformer’s daily circulation, once above 10,000 has shrunk to about half that. Virtually every Vermont daily has suffered a comparable decline in readership.

30 years ago, everyone read the daily paper. Some read two or three. The Rutland Herald and the Burlington Free Press battled for scoops, and political influence.

But now, many people no longer read a daily paper. Vermonters today get their news from a variety of different sources, many of them cable, broadcast or, increasingly, Internet-based. The online news service VtDigger, the Chittenden County weekly paper, Seven Days , and other media are displacing the dailies in political influence and readership - or listenership.

And that decline in circulation and advertising dollars has brought financial weakness to the dailies that once reigned supreme. Staff layoffs have become common. The company that owns the reformer and several other papers recently laid off several editorial staffers, thus further weakening those papers.

All this is unfortunate because a healthy daily newspaper is still the core of vigorous news coverage in its area. And increasingly, vigorous papers are becoming a rare item.

Newspaperman Norm Runnion would not be pleased.